By Ed O'Keefe
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — The debate over banning military-style assault weapons got ugly and personal on Capitol Hill on Thursday as lawmakers traded barbs over the bill's potential effects on Second Amendment rights.
The argument came as the Senate Judiciary Committee prepared to approve the measure, which would ban almost 160 specific military-style rifles and shotguns and limit the size of ammunition clips to 10 rounds.
The bill advanced on a party-line vote of 10 to 8.
Before the vote, the bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sparred with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a lawyer by training and a former solicitor general of Texas.
Cruz began by reviewing the historic origins of the Bill of Rights and then asked whether the proposed firearm restrictions might be compared to placing limits on the First Amendment right to free speech or the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Speaking directly to Feinstein, Cruz asked: "Would she deem it consistent with the Bill of Rights for Congress to engage in the same endeavor that we are contemplating doing to the Second Amendment in the context of the First or Fourth Amendment?"
Visibly angry, Feinstein shot back. "I'm not a sixth-grader," she said. "I'm not a lawyer, but after 20 years, I've been up close and personal with the Constitution. I have great respect for it."
"It's fine you want to lecture me on the Constitution. I appreciate it," she continued, staring at Cruz, who glared back at her. "Just know that I've been here a long time. I've passed a number of bills. I've studied the Constitution myself. I am reasonably well-educated, and I thank you for the lecture. Incidentally, this [bill] does not prohibit — you use the word prohibit — it exempts 2,271 weapons. Isn't that enough for the people of the United States? Do they need a bazooka?"
As the hearing concluded, Feinstein apologized to Cruz for her tone. "You sort of got my dander up," she said.
Cruz later said that he respected Feinstein's work on the issue, but he told reporters that "it's unfortunate that a question about the Constitution provokes such a strenuous response."
In addition to the assault-weapons ban, the panel in the past week has approved a bipartisan proposal to make the illegal purchase of firearms for someone else a federal crime, a Democratic-backed plan to expand the nation's system for background checks related to gun purchases and a bipartisan bill to reauthorize a Justice Department program that funds school security plans.
With the committee's work completed, debate over gun control shifts to the full Senate, where the divide between liberal, urban-state Democrats and Republicans and moderate Democrats wary of infringing the rights of gun owners will make passage of the four proposals more difficult.
"All 100 senators should stand up and vote yes or no" on the four bills, Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Thursday.
Feinstein alluded to the assault-weapons bill's likely defeat: "The road is uphill. I fully understand that."
But Feinstein, who climbed the political ranks after the assassination of two San Francisco City Hall colleagues, said she remains determined to ban the weapons, because, "I cannot get out of my mind trying to find the pulse in someone and putting my fingers in a bullet hole."
At the White House, President Barack Obama urged swift action.
"The full Senate and the House need to vote on this bill, as well as the measures advanced in the past week," he said in a statement. He added later, "Each of these proposals deserves a vote."
But White House press secretary Jay Carney wouldn't say definitively whether Obama plans to lobby moderate Democrats who are wary of supporting the measures.
"The president understands that these are tough issues. If they weren't, they would have been done," Carney said. "If this weren't a tough issue, the assault-weapons ban would not have expired and not been renewed."
Carney stressed, however, that none of the bills "would take a single firearm away from a single law-abiding American citizen," and he said the measures are focused on "the things that we can do to reduce gun violence in America."
Before approving the bill, the committee rejected, along party lines, four amendments from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would have granted exceptions to the assault-weapons ban to residents of counties along the U.S.-Mexican border, residents of rural counties and victims of domestic or sexual violence.
Feinstein said the amendments were a "way to create a nip and a tuck" in her proposed ban.